The Science Behind Silver Tarnish

We cherish silver for its elegance and sophistication in our homes, whether setting out our family silver flatware, putting flowers in silver vases, looking at family photos in silver frames, or setting a special mood with silver candelabras. 

Yet, as soon as we pull out those unique pieces, we’re confronted with silver’s number one enemy — tarnish

A little bit of tarnish adds a certain amount of character to many pieces of silver, especially heirlooms where we want to see and feel the history of something.

Let’s get a little nerdy and talk about the science of tarnish, why it happens, and a couple of prevention ideas. 

The chemistry of tarnish

Tarnish occurs naturally when silver comes into contact with certain compounds in the air, most notably sulfur. When sulfur compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide or sulfur dioxide, react with silver, they form a compound called silver sulfide. This silver sulfide layer appears as a dark coating on the surface of the silver, leading to a tarnished appearance.

In this reaction, silver (Ag) reacts with hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the presence of oxygen (O2) to form silver sulfide (Ag2S) and water (H2O). The silver sulfide layer, less reflective than polished silver, causes the surface to lose its shine.

There you go!

Here’s your cocktail partner banter:

Here’s the chemical equation for tarnish:

2Ag + H2S + O2 → Ag2S + H2O

What makes tarnish happen?

Like most things in life, it depends. 

Here are some of the most common factors that influence the rate at which tarnish develops:

The Atmosphere: Humidity, air pollution, and sulfur-containing gases from industrial processes and certain foods

Other Materials: Rubber, wool, and certain papers contain sulfur compounds that can react with silver and hasten tarnish formation.

Skin Contact: The natural oils, acidity, and sweat from our skin can also contribute to tarnish 

Preventing Tarnish

While tarnish is an inevitable process for silver, there are preventive measures you can take to slow down its development and keep your silver items looking their best:

Proper Storage: Store your silver in airtight containers or bags can help minimize exposure to the atmosphere that contributes to tarnish. Adding anti-tarnish strips or silica gel packets to the storage containers can also absorb moisture and reduce tarnish formation.

Use Anti-Tarnish Products: Treated polishing cloths (we sell those here if needed) or storage bags to slow down tarnish development. These products contain chemicals that absorb sulfur compounds from the air, providing a protective barrier for your silver.

Regular Cleaning and Polishing: Regular cleaning and polishing of silver can help remove any already formed tarnish and slow down further tarnish development. Use mild silver cleaners, homemade remedies, and a soft cloth to clean your silver items gently.

Wear and Handle with Care: Minimize the contact between your silver jewelry and skin by removing it before activities that involve sweating or contact with chemicals. Additionally, handle silver items with clean hands to prevent the transfer of oils and dirt that can contribute to tarnish.

Have any questions?

We’re here to answer your questions about tarnish, how to take care of your silver, and polish it. Contact us at any time.